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The opposite of choice

By Judith Stadtman Tucker

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My youngest son's fifth-grade class is studying vocabulary. "Ugly and disgusting are antonyms of beautiful, and pretty and good looking are synonyms of beautiful," he wrote on a recent worksheet. "Sad and miserable are antonyms of happy, and caring and loving are synonyms of happy." Well, not according to the dictionary -- or his teacher, who subtracted points for "caring" and "loving." But I happen to know that in my ten year-old son's version of the moral universe, loving and caring are inseparable from the concept of happiness. And frankly, I take it as a sign that I have not screwed up this parenting thing too badly, after all.

Not to get all sentimental, but I find myself wondering what America's laws and values would look like if our collective definition of "happy" encompassed the elements of "loving" and "caring." Think about it: from "bliss" to "euphoria," there are no common substitutes for the word "happiness" that imply a connection (much less an obligation) to children, partners, and other living things in our environment. In fact, another synonym for "happy" is "carefree." Perhaps the pursuit of happiness is meant to be a solitary journey. On the other hand, loneliness, abandonment, and isolation are not conditions most people equate with joy and contentment.

Another semantic/moral paradigm I've been wrangling with is the application of the word "choice," particularly the way contemporary mothers use a predictable script, or discourse, of personal choice to relay their feelings, values, problems, and shared experiences. Just as the language we have for talking about happiness glosses over the relational context of emotional life, the discourse of choice of masks the persistence and variables of women's inequality, and the scarcity of adequate options. As historian Rickie Solinger observes in Pregnancy and Power (2006),

In recent decades middle-class women have typically defined their relation to childbearing as a "choice." But federal, state, court and corporate decisions about employment policies governing family leave, health insurance, and day care, for example, have all constrained or expanded the individual choices of even these women. Intensely private decisions about reproduction, including decisions about getting pregnant or not, staying pregnant or not, being the mother to the child one gives birth to or not, are always shaped by public laws and policies. This may be a particularly difficult insight to bring into focus, in part because of the way "personal choice" has eclipsed all other ways of thinking about pregnancy and motherhood.

Linda Hirshman (Get to Work, 2006) and Pamela Stone (Opting Out?, 2007) have respectively criticized and explored the articulation of personal choice as a moral position among professional-class mothers who "opt out" of the paid workforce. Describing the "disjuncture between the rhetoric of choice and the reality of constraint that shaped women's decisions to stay home," Stone concludes that high-achieving women "face a double-bind which is created by the pressure to be both the ideal mother (based on the intensive mothering model) and the ideal worker…The result of this double bind is that their choices or options are indeed much more limited that they appear at first or than the women themselves appreciate."

My own pet peeve is the tendency to confuse feminist principles with the consumer-culture ethic of female empowerment through freedom of choice. In explaining her decision to take a less demanding (and less prestigious) position after the birth of her second child, ABC news anchor Elizabeth Vargas remarked, "I think feminism means we all get that chance to make our choice. And if it just isn't right for me, it isn't right for me…For me it just wasn't working." Actually, feminism means ensuring that women's choices, opportunities and wellbeing aren't compromised by systems and institutions that benefit from women's subordination -- such as the workplace, the education system, the health care establishment, and governments guided by patriarchal values and free market fundamentalism -- but that's another story. (To Vargas's credit, her first project after returning from maternity leave was a report on the lack of policy support for maternal employment in the United States.)

The present generation of mothers did not pull the discourse of choice out of thin air. The language and concepts we have available to name our shared experiences -- as well as the language and concepts used to label mothers as irresponsible and unfit -- are drawn from the dominant culture, particularly the modern taste for hyper-individualism and the political framework of personal responsibility. When fused with prevailing ideals of middle-class mothering and the myth of maternal omnipotence, the formulation of "choice" as the basis for female moral action obscures important differences between mothers and the structural origins of women's complex inequality.

As Barbara Katz Rothman writes, dominant ideologies have the power to limit our perception of the world and what is possible. "An ideology can let us see things, but it can also blind us, close our eyes to our own lived reality, our own experiences…The ideologies of patriarchy, technology and capitalism give us our vision of motherhood while they block our view, give us a language for some things while they silence us for others" ("Beyond Mothers and Fathers: Ideology in a Patriarchal Society" in Mothering: Ideology, Experience and Agency, 1994). In a 2003 interview, Janna Malamud Smith assigns political meaning to the missing language of motherhood: "One way to undercut the power of any group is to obscure the truth of their experience…it's against the interests of the dominant culture to let groups who are marginalized or oppressed own a vibrant language to describe their reality. Instead, we construct descriptions and expectations of motherhood based on ideologies and stereotypes that preserve the status quo." Although the present-day script of maternal choice acknowledges the expansion of women's opportunities and economic roles, it is invariably improvised around a critical void.

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the black box

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